Scientific Management

Scientific management is the umbrella term for practice and research that advocates making organizations more efficient by systematically working to improve the efficiency of workers. The work of individuals associated with this movement, such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, and Henry Gantt, lives on in the current management approaches of statistical process control and Total Quality Management. Because scientific management arose at the same time as the field of industrial and organizational psychology—during the first decades of the 20th century—there was competition between the disciplines (as noted in critiques by Kurt Lewin, Charles Myers, and Morris Viteles). This entry approaches the scientific management school of thought from four points: (a) the genesis and growth of the school, (b) the key concepts of scientific management, (c) the role of scientific management in shaping the history and trajectory of industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology, and (d) the field’s current status and importance in the world of work. Although Taylor’s work often dominates the discussion of scientific management, the role of other researchers—especially the Gilbreths— should be acknowledged to avoid bias and to better show the linkages to I/O psychology.

Genesis and Growth of Scientific Management

Frederick Winslow Taylor is considered the founder and dominant figure in this school of thought, which is often referred to as Taylorism. Considered alongside his collaborators and contemporaries, Taylor looms large. Arthur Bedaeian and Daniel Wren, based on an order of merit ranking procedure, credited Taylor with the most influential management book of the 20th century, Principles of Scientific Management, although multiple books from the human relations movement make the list. Edwin Locke and others have provided flattering treatments. Taylor’s treatment in his Principles viewed management as systematic process and moved the field beyond the familial and craft leadership that was predominant in American industry. The scientific management approach offered stability in an era when traditional methods and assumptions were changing as a result of the confluence of progress, immigration, engineering, and education. Historian Robert Wiebe described the interval between 1877 and 1920 as a time in which many individuals and movements sought order in a country that was buffeted in a choppy sea of forces, such as industrialization and urbanization. The bureaucratic worldview coincided with a concept called psychotechnology in Europe.

Taylor blazed a trail as a consulting engineer and offered insights to industrialists and managers, much as Walter Dill Scott offered insights to advertising executives. After earning an engineering degree at Stevens Institute of Technology (site of the Taylor archives), he worked at the Midvale Steel Company, where he formulated his thinking. The expression of scientific management theory in Shop Management in 1903 and Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 earned Taylor widespread praise from factory owners but condemnation from trade unionists. Misunderstanding flourished on both sides. Taylor’s biggest success was achieved at Bethlehem Steel, where his methods claimed to achieve a 200% increase in productivity after two years with only a 50% increase in wages. Careful historiographic research by Charles Wrege and his colleagues, however, shows problems with some of Taylor’s claims about “Schmidt the laborer” (see References:).

Key Concepts of Scientific Management

Taylor and his contemporaries advocated the study of the way workers perform tasks (most notably, time studies), collection of the informal job knowledge possessed by workers (i.e., knowledge management), and investigations aimed at improving the way tasks are performed in order to increase efficiency (defined as reductions in time). The next step is to convert the results of these studies into new methods of performing tasks with written, standardized work rules and operating procedures. Some attention is paid to the selection of workers, so that they have the skills and abilities to match the needs of the task, and to training, so that workers can perform their tasks according to the established rules and procedures. Taylor also addressed the need to establish a fair or acceptable level of performance for each task and to develop a pay system that provides higher rewards for performance above the acceptable level.

Although the two approaches are often treated synonymously, Taylor’s time studies were not the same as motion studies. Time studies do not include the discrete movements that the Gilbreths labeled “Therbligs” and included in their motion studies. Although there were later attempts to connect motion study to time study, Gilbreth pointed out that Taylor conducted no motion studies. The discipline of industrial engineering integrated the techniques of the early giants as codified in a handbook prepared by H. B. Maynard.

The key concepts of this paradigm include soldiering or restriction of output (at two levels), conducting time studies of workers to study and improve work processes, creating “functional foremen,” cost accounting, and paying the person rather than the position. Soldiering is a term used for workers completing no more than the amount of work that the informal work group enforces through social rules (i.e., no rate busting—rates are established and enforced by formal organizational work rules). A goal of scientific management is to find the most efficient rate and structure the work so that any and all minimally qualified workers can meet the established rate. Time-study rate systems are based on the fastest worker for each job in the organization. This worker’s movements on the job are systematically examined, unnecessary movements eliminated, and a rate established for the job based on this time study. All workers are made accountable to the established rate.

The concept of the functional foremen was posited in opposition to the military management model, with supervision focusing on some aspect of work rather than the supervision (i.e., discipline) of people. Functional foremen were the forerunners of the production expediter and quality control or assurance clerk positions. Cost accounting is also known as task management, in which time clocks and time cards are the most salient feature and routing cards are used to track associated work products. Such a system allows the cost of labor per product to be tracked, archived, reported, and used for reward systems. Paying the person and not the position is the basis for pay-for-performance and per-piece rate pay systems.

Role of Scientific Management in Shaping I/O Psychology

The role of scientific management was a counterfoil to early I/O psychology, although it did provide a legacy of an objective, measurement-driven framework with an emphasis on the economic bottom line.

Hugo Munsterberg, among others (such as Harold Burtt and Viteles), advocated fitting the worker to the work and focusing scientific methods on the appropriate design of each. The success of scientific management in some organizations provided the impetus in business for I/O psychologists to focus on field application versus basic laboratory science. The human relations movement and basic research findings in social psychology offered counterarguments to a strictly applied focus (e.g., scientific management principles) for the young field. Kurt Lewin’s critique of Taylorism in 1920 argued that psychologists and efficiency experts should work together to make work both more productive and more satisfying. Steven Hunt’s recent critique asked rhetorically whether organizational citizenship behaviors would detract from performance in Taylorist jobs—a question that may be countered, how many jobs are Taylorist?

Current Impact of Scientific Management

Current management disciplines, tools, and approaches influenced by the school of scientific management include statistical process control in production techniques, Total Quality Management methods, program evaluation and review technique charting methods, critical path method, benchmarking, and business process redesign. Workforces within U.S. government entities (e.g., military, bureaucracies) continue to not be influenced by scientific management, and little progress in this direction is anticipated in the future.

References:

  1. Hunt, S. T. (2002). On the virtues of staying “inside of the box”: Does organizational citizenship behavior detract from performance in Taylorist jobs? International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 10, 152-159.
  2. Kanigel, R. (2005). The one best way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  3. Maynard, H. B. (Ed.). (1956). Industrial engineering handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Taylor, F. W. (1911). Principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  5. Wiebe, R. (1967). The search for order, 1877-1920 (Reprint ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  6. Wrege, C. D., & Hodgetts, R. M. (2000). Frederick W. Taylor’s 1899 pig iron observations: Examining fact, fiction, and lessons for the new millennium. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 1283-1291.